Local News

Investigator: Soldier's DNA Matches Evidence From 1985 Rape Kit

Posted May 17, 2007 12:32 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2007 9:19 p.m. EDT

— Newly tested DNA evidence gathered after the 1985 rape and murder of an Air Force captain's wife matched a retired soldier who was acquitted of the charges nearly two decades ago, an investigator testified Thursday.

The Army recalled Master Sgt. Timothy B. Hennis to active duty last year to charge him in the rape and stabbing death of Kathryn Eastburn and the murders of two of her young daughters. Hennis was acquitted in a civilian court in 1989, but evidence connecting him to the crimes prompted the military to pursue charges.

Jennifer Leyn, a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, said she tested DNA evidence last year that was gathered 20 years ago in a rape kit. The sample was degraded but it provided clear matches for both Eastburn and Hennis, she said.

Under cross-examination, Leyn said there was no documentation on how the rape kit sample had been stored or whether the swab she tested had been sealed.

Leyn testified during the second day of an Article 32 hearing, similar to a grand jury proceeding, that will determine whether military prosecutors have enough evidence to try Hennis for the crimes. Closing arguments were expected Friday.

Hennis was arrested shortly after Eastburn, 31, and her daughters - Kara Sue, 5, and Erin Nicole, 3 - were found fatally stabbed in their home near Fort Bragg in May 1985. A third child, 22-month-old Jana Eastburn, was found unharmed in her crib.

Eastburn's husband, Air Force Capt. Gary Eastburn, was at squadron officers training school in Alabama at the time. Hennis had adopted the family's dog several days before the murders.

Civilian prosecutors charged Hennis in 1985, and he was convicted in a civilian court and sentenced to death in 1986. The state Supreme Court awarded him a new trial after finding his first trial was run unfairly and with weak evidence, and a second jury acquitted Hennis in April 1989.

Last year, investigators used technology that was unavailable at the time of the slayings to test DNA evidence collected from the crime scene. Local prosecutors said the results warranted reopening the case, but civilian authorities were unable to charge Hennis because of the constitutional protection against double jeopardy.

The military can pursue charges because its court system is a different jurisdiction.

On Thursday, defense attorneys questioned the military's ability to charge Hennis, who retired from the military in 2004. He was living in Lakewood, Wash., when he was recalled by the Army in September.

"I don't think they have jurisdiction," defense lawyer Frank Spinner said. "I don't think we should be here."

Defense attorneys pressured Cumberland County sheriff's detective Sgt. Larry Trotter for details about who handled DNA samples and if any evidence had gone missing in the last two decades.

"Is there any document today that would tell us ... who has had access to that evidence since 1989?" Spinner asked during cross-examination. Trotter testified he wasn't aware of any such document, and he later said no one from the sheriff's office had reviewed the case for possible missing evidence.

Trotter said he reopened the investigation after noticing the size of the case files. Trotter also said he remembered a previous military case, and knew the Army could still prosecute Hennis.

Under questioning from military prosecutors, Trotter said he gave several pieces of DNA evidence - including saliva and blood samples, and a vaginal swab - to the State Bureau of Investigation for review.

Trotter said one of the reasons he submitted the samples was to determine whether there was a match in law enforcement DNA databases.

"It could have well as exonerated him as much as implicated him," Trotter testified.

The defense called one witness, Durwood Canon, who was a crime scene technician in 1985 and helped collect evidence from the Eastburn home for Fayetteville and Cumberland County's combined crime scene unit.

Canon testified that a Cumberland County evidence custodian, Sydney High, was convicted in the mid 1990s for crimes connected to stealing guns from the county's evidence collection. Canon did not comment on evidence in the Eastburn case.